Let's just say this at the top: Shanghai Disneyland is the best castle park that Disney has built since 1955. While I wasn't there to see any of these other parks on their opening days, I can still say that, even in its infancy, I feel that the Shanghai park has more to offer to Disney fans than the current versions of Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, or Hong Kong Disneyland (I haven't been to Paris just yet). As I alluded to in my previous article, what allows for this success is Disney's decision to let the park be a true original, only paying homage to its fellow castle parks with the title of two lands and its classic hub and spoke design. Additionally, while the park draws upon other attractions and themes for inspiration, it builds on them in beautiful new ways that simultaneously feel fresh and timeless. These differences not only justify but demand that Disney fans around the globe make the pilgrimage to Disney's latest magic kingdom at some point in their life.
With that out of the way, let's dive into what makes Shanghai Disneyland great and the rare cases in which it stumbles:
The Overall Experience
From the moment you enter the gates of Shanghai Disneyland, there's really only one word that describes it: "grand." Despite the lack of a train or station, you walk around a giant Mickey topiary, through a tunnel, and towards the massive and breathtaking Enchanted Storybook Castle. For those who have doubted whether of not this castle would actually feel larger than Cinderella Castle, I tell you now that it does. Looking up at all the wings and turrets, you can't help but wonder what each section looks like inside and what it must be like to see the park from its towers.
In a twist from most castle parks, Shanghai's Tomorrowland is actually to your left, sitting at about eight o' clock if the castle is 12. If this is the future, the future is bright — literally! One of my favorite things about this park was how beautiful Tomorrowland looks at night with gorgeous blues, pinks, and purples filling the area as trains of lightcycles zip by. Tomorrowland is also wonderfully spacious which is a welcomed changed from the tight, cramped Metro trains of Shanghai. This combination made for a land that was surprisingly soothing considering that it houses the biggest thrill ride in the park.
On the other side of the hub is Adventure Isle. Disney fans may see elements of Adventureland, Disney's Animal Kingdom, and Tokyo DisneySea present in this lush and impressive terrain. While this land does host two certified E-ticket attractions, perhaps its biggest accomplishment is Camp Discovery. Although I didn't have the chance to do the amazing looking Challenge Trail for myself, even walking around this area — through caverns and behind waterfalls — it was easy to fall in love. Think of this as an even more detailed and adult-friendly version of what would happen when you cross Tom Sawyer's Island with Indiana Jones. Needless to say, this land was another slam dunk.
Do pirates really need their own land? I would have been inclined to say "no" but Treasure Cove begs to differ. Transitioning nearly perfectly from Adventure Isle, Treasure Cove is home to the headlining attraction (and my personal favorite in the park) Pirates of the Carribean — Battle for the Sunken Treasure. Additionally there's a quick service restaurant that allows you to peek into the ride and a fun stage show titled Eye of the Storm: Captain Jack’s Stunt Spectacular to entertain you. Since I've already reviewed the ride, I'll say that, although it does take some patience (especially for those of us who don't know Mandarin), the payoff in Eye of the Storm is worth standing in line for the show. While you've probably seen it all when it comes to stunt shows, I doubt you've seen anything quite like the climax of this performance. Elsewhere, there's plenty for kids and adults to explore within this pirate-run land, justifying its large footprint.
Avoiding the mistakes of Fantasyland's past, Shanghai's version is expansive and covers a large area around the backside of the castle. In addition to classics such as Peter Pan's Flight, Fantasyland is also home to the exclusive attraction Voyage to the Crystal Grotto which takes guests underneath the Enchanted Storybook Castle. Other highlights include a quick service restaurant themed to the Snuggly Duckling from Tangled, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and a Mandarin rendition of Frozen: A Sing-Along Celebration. Once again, "grand" comes to mind when describing this land, even if it's somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the park.
Gardens of Imagination
This land is a hard one to define on the map, but it includes the always-needed Dumbo spinner as well as an out-of-left-field Marvel meet and greet pavilion. Gardens of Imagination is also where Mickey resides as does the customary carousel and is where you stand to enjoy the nighttime spectacular Ignite the Magic. The show is mostly lights and lasers with a few fireworks thrown in and features some expected musical choices in addition to some some you might not see coming (like the reprise version of "For the First Time in Forever"). Overall it looks fantastic... if you can see over the cell phones and kids on shoulders. Lastly, Gardens of Imagination is also kinda-sorta home to the Garden of the 12 Friends... but more on that later.
Most people would likely say that Mickey Avenue is a cross between ToonTown and Main Street, but I would argue it's actually ToonTown mixed with World Bazaar. While everything else in the park is large, Mickey Avenue is shorter than your traditional park entry street due to a larger than normal hub and the inclusion of the Garden of Imagination that separates this road from the castle. Still, this Avenue is one of the best places to dine in the park and surely the top location for shopping (aside from World of Disney just outside the park gates). There's also tons of fun details to explore, so it's worth taking your time before rushing onto larger lands.
Mickey's Storybook Express
To say I wasn't sold on this parade before witnessing it is an understatement. In fact, I actually ditched my friend when he decided to stop and watch it on our first day. However, the next afternoon I happened to catch the performance and, to my surprise, I found it to be delightful.
As it turns out, the train theme to this parade is more or less inconsequential. This isn't to say that it's not a cohesive story, but that it's not limited in its scope. With a solid mix of characters and a great selection of music, this one won me over.
Garden of the 12 Friends
I spoke very highly of this "attraction" based on the concept, even ranking it #7 on my list of my most anticipated things about Shanghai Disneyland. That's why it makes me very sad to report that this was far and away the biggest letdown I experienced in the park. While I knew the idea of this including meet and greets was a bit far fetched, I thought it would at least have some magic to it — perhaps interactive videos or some sort of scavenger hunt element. Instead, my friends and I were crestfallen to discover that this garden was little more than 12 portraits on a single, straight wall and nothing else.
Adding insult to injury, these 12 friends are touted on multiple pieces of merchandise throughout the park. Heck, they even have Duffy costumes for each! If only they had put half as much work into the actual "attraction"...
To be honest, the rest of the Gardens of Imagination were a disappointment as well. I suppose the weather isn't right for the cherry blossoms seen in the concept art, but really the area is just a glorified hub that seems like an odd extension more than anything substantive. But my biggest beef is with the Garden of the 12 Friends — a non-attraction and a massive missed opportunity. Which brings me to my next question:
For the past six or so years that Shanghai Disneyland was being built, Bob Iger has told us that the park would be "authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese." As a Disney fan, I can attest to the first sentiment, but what about that "distinctly Chinese" promise? Admittedly I'm not very familiar with Chinese culture, but to me the differences were hard to spot. Sure, there was plenty of Mandarin being spoken, but what did Disney do to make this the Chinese Disneyland they intended?
To me, it seemed that the inclusion of Mulan in the parade and fireworks show was all there was aside from the Garden of the 12 Friends debacle. Like I said, it's very possible some things went over my head, but, considering that a local journalist at the park asked me what cultural difference I noticed, perhaps Disney's efforts aren't as distinct as they thought. Obviously this doesn't really affect the experience of foreigners, but it could be a criticism of the park going forward.
I absolutely loved Shanghai Disneyland. Removing the emotion and personal connection that comes with the Disney parks, I have to say it's probably the second or third best park the company has built, surpassed only by Tokyo DisneySea and Walt's original Disneyland. Of course, those parks have had 15 and 60 years respectively to grow and evolve while Shanghai Disneyland is less than a week old. With that in mind, there's a chance that Shanghai's could one day reign supreme, but, in the meantime, the Walt Disney Company should be very proud of what they've accomplished and Disney fans should start planning their trips now. In other words, #ThanksShanghai.